First European farmers’ heights did not meet expectations

Drawing of a scientist working with human skeletal remains and ancient DNA. Credit: Marija Stojkovic

A combined study of genetics and skeletal remains show that the switch from primarily hunting, gathering and foraging to farming about 12,000 years ago in Europe may have had negative health effects as indicated by shorter than expected heights in the earliest farmers, according to an international team of researchers.

“Recent studies tried to characterize the contribution of DNA to height,” said Stephanie Marciniak, assistant research professor, Penn State. “We started thinking about the longstanding questions around the shift from hunting, gathering and foraging to sedentary farming and decided to look at the health affect with height as a proxy.”

Working with George H. Perry, associate professor of anthropology and biology, Penn State, and more than 40 international researchers, Marciniak looked at the heights of individuals who lived before the Neolithic, and in the Neolithic, Copper, Bronze and Iron ages. The researchers measured the long bones of that were also being sampled or already been sampled for ancient DNA testing by other researchers.

The researchers created a model that used , indicators of stress seen in the bones and ancient DNA. They also looked at genetic indications of ancestry. The researchers reported their results in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Our approach is unique in that we used height measurements and ancient DNA taken from the same individuals,” said Marciniak.

The switch from a hunting, gathering and foraging lifestyle to a settled agricultural lifestyle did not occur across Europe simultaneously, but in at different times.

The researchers studied 167 individuals who lived from 38,000 to 2,400 years ago. This included preagricultural individuals, the earliest farmers and subsequent farmers. They found that individuals from the Neolithic, taking into account their genetically indicated potential heights, were an average of 1.5 inches shorter than previous individuals and 0.87 inches shorter than subsequent individuals. They also found that heights steadily increased through the Copper—0.77 inches, the Bronze—1.06 inches, and the Iron—1.29 inches with respect to Neolithic heights.

Drawings of skeletal indicators of non-specific stress evaluated in the study. Credit: Katharine Thompson

“Right now, what we know is that 80% of height is from and 20% is from the environment,” said Marciniak. “Researchers haven’t yet identified all the genetic variants associated with for height.”

The switch from hunting, gathering and foraging to agriculture did not always result in a height loss, although it did in some parts of Europe, according to Marciniak.

Marciniak and her team also looked at genetic ancestry in their study.

“There was movement of people, generally from east to west, ” she said. “We wanted to account for that migration that perhaps brought different proportions of height-associated genetic variants.”

When the team incorporated ancestral information, they found that for the Neolithic, the height decrease is reduced a bit so that it is not as extreme.

“This research requires more study with larger datasets,” said Marciniak. “Our work represents a snapshot of something that is very dynamic and very nuanced. We need to do more to see what is the cause of the decrease in achieved height versus predicted genetic height during the shift to farming.”

The researchers said they believe that their approach is adaptable to studies of past human health and could be applied in other contexts.



More information:
Stephanie Marciniak et al, An integrative skeletal and paleogenomic analysis of stature variation suggests relatively reduced health for early European farmers, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2022). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2106743119

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Hexbyte Glen Cove Nothing funny about bad year for Maine’s clownish puffins

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In this July 1, 2013, file photo, a puffin prepares to land with a bill full of fish on Eastern Egg Rock off the Maine coast. This year’s warm summer was bad for Maine’s beloved puffins. Far fewer chicks fledged than need to to stabilize the population. Credit: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File

Maine’s beloved puffins suffered one of their worst years for reproduction in decades this summer due to a lack of the small fish they eat.

Puffins are seabirds with colorful beaks that nest on four small islands off the coast of Maine. There are about 1,500 breeding pairs in the state and they are dependent on fish such as herring and sand lance to be able to feed their young.

Only about a quarter of the were able to raise chicks this summer, said Don Lyons, director of conservation science for the National Audubon Society’s Seabird Institute in Bremen, Maine. About two-thirds of the birds succeed in a normal year, he said.

The colonies have suffered only one or two less productive years in the four decades since their populations were restored in Maine, Lyons said. The birds had a poor year because of warm ocean temperatures this summer that reduced the availability of the fish the chicks need to survive, he said.

“There were fewer for puffins to catch, and the ones they were able to were not ideal for chicks,” Lyons said. “It’s a severe warning this year.”

The islands where puffins nest are located in the Gulf of Maine, a body of water that is warming faster than the vast majority of the world’s oceans. Researchers have not seen much mortality of adult puffins, but the population will suffer if the birds continue to have difficulty raising chicks, Lyons said.

In this July 19, 2019, file photo, research assistant Andreinna Alvarez, of Ecuador, holds a puffin chick before weighing and banding the bird on Eastern Egg Rock, a small island off the coast of Maine. This year’s warm summer was bad for Maine’s beloved puffins. Far fewer chicks fledged than need to to stabilize the population. Credit: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File

The discouraging news comes after positive signs in recent years despite the challenging environmental conditions. The population of the birds, which are on Maine’s state threatened species list, has been stable in recent years.

The birds had one of their most productive seasons for mating pairs in years in 2019. Scientists including Stephen Kress, who has studied the birds for decades, said at the time that birds seemed to be doing well because the Gulf of Maine had a cool year that led to an abundance of food.

The puffins are Atlantic puffins that also live in Canada and the other side of the ocean. Internationally, they’re listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.



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